The Via Francigena is a pilgrimage route that dates back to some time around the 8th Century. The Longobards first developed the trail, which was the main road linking Rome with the English Channel, as a way to connect their empire that spanned both sides of the Alps. The name of the route derives from the fact that it originated in the land of the Franks.
The Via Francigena is really many routes rather than one well defined trail that connects two points. What we normally think of as the Via Francigena is a route first documented in 990 by Sigeric, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who kept a detailed diary on his trip from Rome (where he had been to see the Pope) to Canterbury.
Sigeric’s route enters Italy in Valle d’Aosta at the Gran San Bernardo Pass on the Swiss border and then proceeds for 900 kilometers to Rome passing through Valle d’Aosta, Piedmont, Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, Liguria, Tuscany and finally Lazio. A variant that connected to the Camino de Santiago enters Italy at Monginevro on the French border with Piedmont near Val di Susa. The two trunks of the Via Francigena meet in Vercelli.
In the Middle Ages, the Via Francigena was a fundamental part of a network of pilgrimage roads that connected Christianity’s three main cities of worship: Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela. A southern Via Francigena brought pilgrims from Rome to the east coast of Puglia where they would sail to Jerusalem.
Italy began to rediscover the Via Francigena in the 1990s after centuries of disuse and in 1994 the European Union designated the road as a European Cultural Route. Though more than a decade has passed since then, many Italians (and foreigners) still do not know what the Via Francigena is and the few modern day pilgrimages who venture forth are forced to do large portions of their trek on cement. By contrast, in Spain the Camino de Santiago has been developed in a eco-friendly way that has encouraged tens of thousands of people to walk the route every year.